T10-So What’s a Futurist?

  • Introduction and Provenance
  • Overview: What Makes for a Strategic Foresight/Scenario Futurist?
  • Expanded Description of Futurists and Their Futuring Skills
  • 1. Interdisciplinary Knowledge
  • 2. Multiple Information Processing Modes
  • 3. Trend-Tracking for Strategic and Deep Change
  • 4. Non-Linear Extrapolation of Trends to Mirror Social Complexity
  • 5. Scenario Sets to Capture Multiple Plausible Futures
  • 6. Scenarios as a Contingency Planning Tool
  • 7. Goading Clients Toward Growth
  • 8. Reaching for the Horizon
  • What about Me?

Tutorial #10 – So What’s a Futurist?

Introduction and Provenance

I wrote the initial versions of So What’s a Futurist? in 1999. At that time, a friend of mine and I tried to create a “Christian Futures Network” to provide training courses that would give a comprehensive, entry-level look at what strategic foresight, futuring, and futurists are all about. (Sidenote: It didn’t fly.)

This article offers an eight-point description of the mindset and skill set of “strategic scenario futurists” who are Christians. I have edited it to include more material. I have also changed a key term. In previous versions, I used the term “professional futurists” to distinguish us (i.e., scenario producers) from other kinds of people who are typically called futurists, but whose frameworks and tools are quite different from those of us who produce scenarios. In this version, when I use the term futurist, I am referring to those who use three classic core skills found in the discipline of strategic foresight: trend tracking, non-linear extrapolation, and producing scenarios to provoke groups to consider their most preferable future options.

If you are interested in a basic text on futuring skills, I’d recommend The Art of the Long View by Peter Schwartz.

This conceptual article includes few examples. Perhaps I’ll be able to come back at some later date to flesh things out. Until then, on with the future!

Overview: What Makes for a Strategic Foresight/Scenario Futurist?

When we speak of a futurist, we mean someone who has the necessary interdisciplinary mindset and skill set needed to accomplish the range of roles needed to assist clients in assessing their past and present, and directing them toward realistic appraisals of the multiple directions that plausible futures could take them. This is done through three primary techniques of futures studies:

1.   Trend tracking. This is the practice of watching for changes in cultures and their underlying paradigms. It focuses especially on techniques to spot early-on trends whose signs are just emerging or where signs are visible but not yet seen as particularly significant.

2.   Nonlinear extrapolation. This “mind-mapping” style skill involves generating plausible “what if’s” that may emerge from cultural trends, and discerning patterns that indicate what the short-term and long-term ramifications of those trends might be.

3.   Scenario construction. This process helps us consider the emotional and systems impacts in the patterns among those ramifications, and turn those discernments into provocative, open-ended scenarios. This is designed to spark discussion among clients on some plausible futures, so they can sort through options and make preparations for what they decide to pursue as their most preferable future.

This trilogy of skills is the core of a discipline known as “strategic foresight” or “futuring.” Put another way, trend tracking helps us find the new narratives (stories) currently being told in our cultures, nonlinear extrapolation helps us determine possible plot twists these stories might take, and scenarios are finished (but general) stories about the future that help us find our roles in transforming the future.

Those whom we train will have these three core skills as distinguishing marks of being a “real” – i.e., a scenario-producing – Christian futurist. At this point, just about anyone can hang out a shingle that declaims themselves a “Christian futurist.” People who have so identified themselves (or who have been so labeled by others) include prophetic teachers and professors, church consultants and church planters, researchers and demographers, macro-historians and mega-hysterians, visionaries and vision casters, fad trackers and fiction writers. Our extensive, multifaceted description of a “full futurist” in this document is not meant to denigrate the work other such individuals do. However, it is meant to set a standard for the kind of trainees we hope to produce. (And actually, a strategic foresight futurist actually plays many of those roles, but all rolled into one, so they are very relevant.) To help people understand the differences between our view and that of other kinds of “futurists,” we have included a section on them in each point in our eight-point description.

Not only should Christian futurists exhibit the three core skills – regardless of whether they work “in ministry” or in community/secular settings. They should also hold a distinctive set of biblical presuppositions, ethics, and spiritual practices which form and inform their work. For instance, according to biblical ethics, Christian futurists should never promote as preferable futures any scenarios which encourage unjust treatment of people, even though such scenarios may be possible, plausible, and/or probable. Our Partnership training will include rigorous examination of biblical ethics and codes of appropriate conduct for futurists who are guided by their Christian faith.

Expanded Description of Futurists and Their Futuring Skills

Christian futurists should exhibit all of the mindset and skill set elements as a strategic foresight futurist profiled below – regardless of whether they work “in ministry” or in community/secular settings. However, futurists who happen to be Christians should also hold a distinctive set of philosophical presuppositions, ethics, aesthetics, and spiritual practices which form and inform their work.

For instance, according to biblical ethics, Christian futurists should never promote as preferable futures any scenarios which encourage unjust treatment of people, even though such scenarios may be possible, plausible, and/or probable. And it may mean that Christians who are futurists need to refuse opportunities to work for people or organizations whose stated purposes can never be justified from a biblical perspective, because they are unjust, abusive, or otherwise unethical.

When we speak of a “futurist,” we mean someone who has the necessary mindset and skill set to accomplish a range of roles in assisting clients with vision development and contingency planning. When we train Christian futurists, it is with the comprehensive profile below constantly in mind.

1. Interdisciplinary Knowledge

Strategic foresight/scenario futurists are “specialists at being generalists.” They function from a broad, interdisciplinary knowledge base. They tend to be voracious learners who observe obsessively and process information holistically. As systems thinkers, they are “wired” to perceive the interconnections and interactions among various cultural domains (e.g., arts, business, ecology, economics, education, entertainment, health, global culture, government, media, philosophy and religion, society, science and technology).

Christians who are strategic foresight futurists evaluate cultural domains through a biblical grid of theological presuppositions, ethics, and aesthetics.

Other kinds of Christian futurists do not expand their knowledge base widely, or else they maintain the cultural domains as discrete units that do not interact, or put their focus on a limited number of cultural domains.

2. Multiple Information Processing Modes

Strategic foresight/scenario futurists must have the crucial intuitive and/or trained ability to discern patterns within large sets of data, must be able to alternate between analytical and synthetic thinking skills, and must have the relational and communication skills to inform, equip, lead, challenge, and inspire their clients.

Christians who are strategic foresight futurists will acknowledge their natural giftings, spiritual giftings, and training opportunities as all part of God’s providential “nature-and-nurture-and-choice” package designed uniquely for them. This puts their futurist work in the realm of worship. Though some very high-level abilities are needed to become an effective futurist, Christians in this field will not make those abilities into an idol, nor use antibiblical or unethical methods of relating or communicating with clients.

Other kinds of Christian “futurists” do not develop these cognitive, relational, or communication skills developed to the point that they can perform the roles required.

3. Trend-Tracking for Strategic and Deep Change

Strategic foresight/scenario futurists must have an intuitive and/or trained ability to discern the differences between fads (trends lasting two years or less, and generally with little long-term impact), short-term trends (two to five years, and some influence), long-term trends (five to 50 years, with significant influence), and meta-trends (over 50 years, with enormous impact). They must be able to track the direction for short- and long-term trends within multiple cultural domains, assess the particular underlying dynamics contributing to those trends, and evaluate possible intersections of key vectors of change.

This is important, because the long-term trends and meta-trends are what “drive” change in a culture. (In fact, they are often termed “drivers.”) These longer-term trends represent critical shifts in the deepest worldview/theological paradigm levels in a society These shifts impact the structural way social institutions function, which together impact the surface/operational level of that society.

Christians who are strategic foresight futurists will interpret trends, their underlying dynamics, and their interactions through a biblical worldview grid. This may mean evaluating certain trends, dynamics, and changes as being unhealthy from a biblical point of view, even if people from other background find nothing wrong with them. (For instance, some people see unlimited economic growth as a good thing, but Christians should see that such expansion can lead to negative consequences in terms of the environment, abuse of people who are poor, etc.) This in turn calls forth multiple redemptive responses to alter those patterns, while always leaving intact peoples’ opportunity and responsibility to choose God’s ways for themselves.

Other kinds of Christian “futurists” tend not to distinguish between these categories of trends, and so assume that fads and short-term trends are the significant factors in developing plans for institutional change. Because of this truncated perspective, they focus on short-range changes in surface operations, and are not equipped to help clients develop long-range changes at the underlying theological and structural levels.

4. Non-Linear Extrapolation of Trends to Mirror Social Complexity

Mere linear extrapolation assumes a simplistic model of sociocultural change – such as that the rate and/or direction of change is constant. (For instance, at the current rate of women entering into top leadership of Fortune 500 companies, there will be equality between men and women … around the year 2100.) Non-linear extrapolation assumes the opposite – that change is a complex process involving many factors. (For instance, by pushing harder on gender discrimination lawsuits, conducting anti-discrimination trainings in the workplace, etc., job equality may arrive significantly sooner than 2100.)

Strategic foresight futurists project trends into the long-term future by conducting complex, non-linear extrapolation. The process involved here is similar to a mindmap, starting with a specific topic in the center, drawing spokes to about half a dozen answers to a what if question (e.g., What could plausibly result if seminary students decide not to work in churches as pastors?), making each of those results into new centers for another set of spokes, and repeating this process six or seven times. This provides a dataset for discerning patterns when multiple factors play against each other.

Christians who are strategic foresight/scenario futurists should intentionally calculate God’s providence and unexpected turnings into any extrapolation of current trends into the future. Although it is important to pray for God’s wisdom and guidance in all aspects of futuring as a Christian, the extrapolation process especially needs to be covered in prayer, since it represents one of the most crucial stages in the process of developing scenario sets.

Other kinds of Christian “futurists” use straight, linear extrapolation, which yields simplistic results due to a reductionistic set of assumptions (e.g., assuming that current patterns will not change over time). This method proves inadequate to yield realistic long-range scenarios because it tends to overstate both positive and negative rates of change.

5. Scenario Sets to Capture Multiple Plausible Futures

Strategic foresight/scenario futurists identify the drivers (meta-trends), predetermined elements, and critical uncertainties for their clients’ particular areas of concern, and develop a set of realistic scenarios that capture as many aspects as possible of the multiple, plausible ways the possible futures of those special areas could go. This requires an intuitive and/or trained sense of what is crucial versus what is extraneous. And scenario construction is significantly aided by the ability to utilize fiction-writing techniques in what is a substantially non-fiction topic. The more realistic the scenarios, the more helpful the processing about those plausibilities may be.

Christians who are strategic foresight futurists will need to be intentional about developing biblical parameters about the future. For instance, if their eschatology is overly apocalyptic and closure-oriented, that could tend to skew the scenarios in the direction of passivity: “The world will end soon, so why do anything to try to change the direction things are going?” If their eschatology is too open-ended, that could skew the scenarios in opposite directions: “We don’t know when Christ is coming back, so it all depends upon us to change the way the world is.”

Other kinds of Christian “futurists” tend not to work to the level of identifying drivers, and do not have a good sense of what components are essential to the scenarios at hand. They may also not have good writing skills, or may not have the creative ability to envision plausible-sounding vignettes that capture the complex realities of the situations their clients face.

6. Scenarios as a Contingency Planning Tool

Scenarios are not about “prophesying or predicting the future.” They are about preparing for the future now, and breaking out of a mindset that assumes the future is set in stone and can’t be changed. Rather, scenarios are built upon the assumption that we are responsible to co-create the future wisely. Thus, strategic foresight futurists help their clients draw up lists of early indicators that would tell them if part of any particular scenario is in fact unfolding, and guide them in a process of contingency planning related to the scenario set.

Christians who are strategic foresight/scenario futurists must be able to interpret the times and what people should do. The stage of helping clients with early indicators as a planning tool – and any other forms of evaluation tools – calls for integrity and humility. This process will significantly shape the direction clients take, and it needs to be bathed in prayer. Christians have the added dimension of knowing they are co-creating the future within God’s providence, and futurists should equip their Christian clients in this mindset to help break them free from any theological determinism or fatalism that assumes we cannot impact the future.

Other kinds of Christian “futurists” stop at forecasting and do not assist clients in creating contingency plans and evaluation tools specific to their needs.

7. Goading Clients Toward Growth

Strategic foresight/scenario futurists challenge their clients’ core assumptions, as well as the structures and practices that emerge from them. This approach is based on the foundational belief that substantial and long-lasting change can only occur when the underlying levels of philosophical assumptions are systemically altered, which allows the overlying levels of structures and practices to “really” change. (In biblical terms, “New wine needs new wineskins.”)

Christians who are strategic foresight futurists will need to serve clients by leading them into and in a deep and spiritual transformation process, not a mere shuffling of the deck chairs. This process will probably be very uncomfortable for both parties at times, because we all tend to resist change. The change process with clients may be particularly difficult, and calls forth high levels of discernment in observing and evaluating clients’ situations, and challenging them to go as deep as possible in the change process – and then at least one step farther.

Other kinds of Christian “futurists” generally work at the surface level of operational practices. This means they cannot guide clients well into deeper and lasting change, which can only issue from change at the level of underlying philosophical assumptions and the structural presuppositions that lie between them and surface operational practices.

8. Reaching for the Horizon

Strategic foresight/scenario futurists inspire their clients to dream big and vision-cast well, and also to work beyond their current assumptions, contingencies, and plausible futures into co-creating preferable futures from a realistic structural base that reflects a future-compatible set of underlying assumptions.

Christians who are strategic foresight futurists should function well in whatever creative abilities they possess, because they recognize the reality of being created in God’s image. The entire process of creating scenarios for contingency planning and institutional transformation is based on the presupposition that not all thing are set in stone, and that people have the opportunity to co-create their future with God. If a Christian futurist does not hold this view, it will be difficult (if not impossible) to be of real assistance to clients, because change and planning are meaningless exercises in a deterministic world. And it may well be true that we can best stay culture-current by keeping futures-fluent. That has grand implications for all aspects of our lives.

Other kinds of Christian “futurists” either cannot inspire people to dream, cannot help them follow through with their dreams, or are stuck on “perfect” or preferable futures that do not account for the realities of the situation.

What about Me?

So – that’s my understanding, taken from a futurist training that clarified issues for me 10 years ago. Certainly there have been advances in the field since then. Perhaps someday I’ll be able to catch up and then keep up with them.

© 2010 Brad Sargent. All rights reserved.